SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Katey Stone has a ready answer when asked what it means to be the first woman to coach the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team.
"I hope sincerely that I'm not the last," she said as she guided her team through the preliminary round and into Thursday's gold medal match against Canada. "To be in this position is an incredible privilege, and hopefully there will be many more to follow."
The coach of the Harvard women's team and on leave for the Sochi Games, Stone has the Americans right where they have long expected to be: in the Olympic final, preparing for another game against Canada for the gold medal. The North American women's hockey powers have met in the championship of every world championship and all but one Winter Games, but something is different at this Olympics.
There's a woman standing on the U.S. bench, calling out strategy and player changes.
After three Olympics with Ben Smith in charge of the women's team and one under the tutelage of Mark Johnson, Stone led the Americans to a victory in the 2013 world championship and has a chance for another gold medal in the Olympics. In addition to being the first woman to lead the U.S. women's team, she's also the only female head hockey coach in Sochi.
"I can't get caught up in that," said Stone, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I women's hockey history. "I understand what the significance is, but that's never been something that's driven me. Let other people decide what that means."
Women's hockey is a new sport as these things go, having staged its first world championship in 1990 before joining the Winter Games in Nagano in '98. (The NCAA staged its first Division I championship in women's hockey in 2001.) More comparable to the NHL of the 1940s than the men's game today, there just hasn't been that much time for young girls to grow up playing the sport at a high level, compete at Division I college or on the national team and then transition into coaching.
But it's happening now: Canadian Danielle Goyette, a three-time Olympian, is an assistant coach with the Canadian team, and her former teammate Carla MacLeod is an assistant with the Japanese team that earned its way to the Olympics this year for the first time. (Canada had female coaches the previous four Olympics, but former NHL player and coach Kevin Dineen is leading the team in Sochi.)
The U.S. team has two assistant coaches: Hilary Witt and Bobby Jay, plus goaltending coach Robb Stauber. But for Stone, the answer is more in the X's and O's than in the XX's and XY's buried in her DNA.
"My relationship with the players is definitely different than a guy's would be. It's different than my male assistant coach," she said. "I think you understand when to demand more, and you do care about them in a different way. But I believe it's more about the personality than it is about the gender."
Men and women are different; no news there.
But are they more different than, say, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, two NFL coaches with widely differing personalities who have both won Super Bowls?
"I suppose they are different in ways," said U.S. forward Lyndsey Fry, who also played for Stone at Harvard but played for many male coaches while growing up. "But the best thing about coach Stone is that no matter where's she's coaching, whether it's here, there, whether she's a woman or not, I don't think matters is because her goal is to win.
"Coaches are coaches to me."
University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, one of the most successful in the history of the sport, said he has never felt at a disadvantage — or an advantage, for that matter — because he is a man coaching women. At the highest level of the sport, he said, gender becomes even less important.
"If you are talking about the kind of athletes you are coaching at the Olympics, I don't think they care who their coach is as long as it is somebody that is really good that can teach them about the game, make them better as individuals and get their team to a gold medal," said Auriemma, an eight-time NCAA champion at UConn and the coach of the U.S. women's team that won the gold medal at the London Olympics.
"I don't think they care one iota who the coach is. And if they do, they are misguided."
AP Sports Writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this story from Storrs, Conn.
Follow Jimmy Golen on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/jgolen.